Feb 6, 2015

On Education and its Quality: Purpose of education

For the past three decades, Abhinav has been working to establish quality education. This has lead us to first question - What is education about?, What are the benchmarks of its quality?, How can we achieve it? It has not been an easy path to find answers so that they may be actually applied in the field. And then the mindset one needs to comprehend this and apply it is very much opposite to the thinking prevalent in the society around us. However, we believe that this is the mindset one has to acquire before one gets concerned with education - either as an occupation, or a profession, or even simply as a parent. So, in a series of articles I will try to bring out the idea in the hope that even the young ones may understand.

There are many text-book definitions and philosophies that one could write here, but allow me to take an easier path. To be educated is a state in which a person reaches after a certain deliberate effort, partly by him/her and partly by the people around such as parents, teachers, etc. This effort, like any other, has a purpose, and once we understand it, we achieve it. Would you take the effort of cooking food if it were not to satisfy your hunger, or to buy good clothes if it were not to improve your self-image? Would you buy a house if you did not require a sense of stability? Would you raise a child if you were not to get the feeling of being loved and at the same time of being accomplished in certain way?

Getting educated has a purpose ...

How learning may have evolved

Lets take a little detour into how we evolved as intelligent creatures. Man evolved superior only due to his brain being different than other creatures. What may have led to this being so? Darwin answers - survival. To elaborate - Man had to learn to survive; survive from dangers of nature, survive from lack of food, survive from loneliness, etc. To this end, he had to figure out new and better ways to do things - find food or grow it, fight tigers with spears instead of stones, find others like him so they can hunt together, protect each other, and so much more. While this was happening, his brain was also developing, making his mind better.

Better ... in what way? Would Man be better off if he could not figure out that sharp objects can kill better than blunt ones? Would Man be better off if did not see the practical benefits of living in a group? Would he be better off, if he did not study his adversary before he attacked? ...

Each task required Man to use and sharpen his faculty for abstract thinking, i.e., his faculty to connect the reality of the senses to the ideas in his mind - ideas formed by selectively choosing what aspects of reality to focus on. When he saw a wild elephant, he had to judge the distance that he must maintain to remain safe, and the shape of color of the ears was not important. When forming a society, it was important to name the relations for what benefits they give you and the specific nature of every person in that relation did not matter so much; a grocer is someone you deal with for groceries, regardless of his looks or dental hygiene.

Thus every act of learning was broadly to grasp the properties and behavior of certain objects (living or not) around you, pick the ones you think are important for your survival/betterment, store them in memory and later connect them with similar or dissimilar observations of other objects. Most of this process is automatic in that we get used to it in early childhood. What is never automatic and therefore needs constant adjustment and focus, is the part where we connect the different things together. 

Reality, Reason and the Mind

Would the ancient Man know that a larger creature like the elephant cant run for too long (because of its weight/size) without having observed many different creatures and their speeds? Can the modern Man create lighter alloys for making aircraft without first knowing the properties of different elements and then figuring out a way of combining them? Can a poet create a lasting poem without having observed the deepest desires and tribulations of men and having woven these observations together in a meaningful way to ask some of the most difficult questions? Can an educator proceed to educate, without having connected the various kinds of learning that Man does throughout his life, with the objective of such learning? And, can the educator, profess a method without truly judging the outcomes of such a method of learning?

One can connect different observations in many ways, some of these are logical, others are not. Even in logic, one can find different ways of using the facts (with different interpretations) and hence arriving at different results. So how does one know which is the right path? ... or the right answer? 

Correspondence with Reality ... That is how we know the right answer ... The path which leads is to this correspondence, is the right path.

Let's imagine the ancient Man who encounters a wild elephant for the first time; He can ...
  1. imagine it to be a divine creature and worship it, probably ending up squashed under its feet
  2. reason out that it is huge and so like cows (which are larger than deer) it cant run fast enough
  3. reason out that it has strong legs and so like a lion, can outrun him quickly
The last kind of thinking is the one which will surely save him and he would know so only once he sees the consequences of his thought. He will possibly lose his life, but the other men around him will observe and learn and save theirs. Thomas Alva Edison tried about 2000 ways of making a light bulb and when all failed, he famously said that he found 2000 ways of NOT making one. Since then mankind has made billions of bulbs using the technique that worked.

Of what use is our learning, if the decisions it leads us to make, do not give us returns? How can our decisions and actions give us returns if they are based on unreal assumptions or wrong expectations? The acid test of ALL learning is whether it gives results. Results are a certain effect upon society around us and also the return-effect upon us. These effects are governed by the laws / standards of morality as also the principles of economics, politics and science, which ensure that individuals and, in turn, the society survives. These laws define our reality for us.

Thus, Reason is the means of connecting observed facts together so as to form the truest impression of the world, so as to decide our course of actions, to get the best possible outcomes. It may not work the first time, so we do it again and again, with different approaches, until we get it right. This is the process of learning. This is the training of the mind.

... and so the Purpose of education

To be educated is to train our mind to think in correspondence with reality. The purpose of education is therefore simply to enable Man to deal with the world around him. More critically, education trains the mind to gather facts, analyse situations, solve problems and hence analyse the results / consequences which in turn is used to fine tune our mind further. 

A worrying trend in our society today is that we either completely or partially ignore the analyses of the consequences of our thoughts and actions. We do so because its difficult to analyse the consequences each time, especially when there are more pressing deadlines to be met. Consequently, we end up saying "... So What!!!" often and pretend to ignore our mistakes. We can only do so because society is more flexible today than it was for the ancient Man. We can commit small mistakes every now and then and people will tolerate. But, what about the bigger ones? What about mistakes in deciding our careers, or marriage or how to spend our wealth, etc.?

Now, here's where we either resort to social norms and customs or the advise of the elders. This by itself is not wrong, however, circumstances change with each passing day. What was true for the tree-dweller was not true for the cave-man; and what was true for the cave-man does not work for the civilized man. Likewise advises and customs can be only correct some of the times.

Hence, more critically the purpose of education is not only to train the mind to think rationally and critically in some circumstances (e.g. those that may be arranged in a school environment) but also to temper the mind to operate this way for each problem on one hand, while on the other, to be capable of doing so efficiently in terms of time and resources.

Please stay tuned for the next article on how this may be achieved.